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RE: [xmca] concepts


I like your use of "considerable historical baggage of ideologies". This is
the same baggage that we contend with in teaching curriculum and
instruction. What of best practice research is designed on the tacit
implications of this so-called baggage? Thankfully, a marked shift in
thinking about the social and cultural factors of learning has made its way
into the discourse. 

The full-embodiment of all these shifts--in thinking of concepts, in
conceptualization of learning, in the conceptualization of theory and
science, and in learning as a science--is still, I agree, subject to the
weight of the respective baggage. 

I appreciate your statement that all concepts are cultural constructions.
Lakoff and Johnson (1999) suggest an argument against those who say, what
about the universals--those things that are true for all people across all
cultures--by reminding us that if our knowledge and ability to know is
embodied, and we have similar bodies, then there will be a certain amount of
our individual experience that resounds with experience of others. Overall,
I think some researchers and scientists, just like all people, are afraid to
let one reality go because we all fear chaos (especially teachers and
parents who have been in a classroom that is "out of control").
Stability=comfort. I am not so much bothered by the idea that things change
and so do ideas because I am comforted by the fact that even so, many things
stay the same! Expecting that things will change, expecting that the
students in my classes will grow and learn is okay by me.

I am working on several ideas right now in relation to my project on the
reflective writing of second and fourth graders: imagery/mental
representation, words and meaning, and larger meaningful constructions like
declarative statements of concepts/propositions. In thinking about what it
is that these student have constructed in writing I am considering many of
these questions: What is recalled from sensorimotor memory, Is it just
words? Is it meaningful? Is it demonstrations of concepts? And knowing what
the objectives of the lessons were in the activities, were any of the
concepts reported? How does a child's knowledge of conventional words and
forms of writing assist or diminish what they intend to communicate? How
much is their writing an artifact of the influence of their instruction
about writing? What is it that they mean, if it is not one of my categories
or if it is not conventional? If children of this age are not really able to
think in concepts, what is it that they are writing exactly about what they
are learning? There are so many questions! 

Overall, this discussion has been a wonderful working diversion thanks to
the contribution of all of the contributors on XMCA.  
-----Original Message-----
From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu [mailto:xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu] On
Behalf Of Jay Lemke
Sent: Sunday, April 10, 2011 6:37 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] concepts

Martin, Andy, and all --

We are planning to have some discussions around the Concept of a Concept and
its/our Discontents over the next few weeks here in the Lab.

We'll see what that turns up. Meanwhile, I'll just say that I am uneasy with
a lot of our Western philosophical tradition around "concepts" and precisely
the way it overlaps with folk-theory discourse in particular modern
historical epochs (and particulars cultures, not to mention social classes,
etc.) deeply rooted in mentalism and individualism.

Obviously LSV and many others, including most of us, have been working to
find more materialist and trans-individual ways of dealing with the
phenomena for which the notion of a concept normally serves, and brings with
it its considerable historical baggage of ideologies we mostly don't share
or like.

I don't believe that abstract-level reasoning, or the use of categories, at
all demands a notion of "concept" such as we usually have it. Concepts are,
I think, inherently reifications. Not in the sense that they put us in mind
of some real material thing, which they don't, but in the sense that they
claim a "thing-like" semantic status (they are named, by nouns, qualified by
adjectives, even counted in some quarters! and used as the agents and
objects of verbs) ... all of which is very un-process-like, very
un-dynamical, very Platonist not just in the sense of edging towards giving
Ideas causal force but in the sense of supporting an unchanging universal

Higher intellectual reasoning and action-problem-solving processes, fully
embodied, always essentially feeling-guided as well as logically
describable, seem to me to be ones in which the mediational processes are
protean, flexible, fuzzy, productively ambiguous, leaping beyond logic and
then cleaning up after themselves for the sake of formal propriety.
Categories are made, modified, and discarded as the moment demands. To say
the same thing twice (i.e. in two events or contexts), the root of what we
usually call generalization or abstraction, is always an approximation,
always a judgment about the relative relevance of making things appear
similar vs. highlighting their differences. Fixed abstractions are cultural
conventions, supported by institutions, disciplines, and paradigms. They are
limiting, and meant to be limiting, they are tools of social and cultural
control. Higher-order intellectual processes become creative precisely
insofar as we liberate ourselves from the notion that the Given Concepts
worshipped around us are anything more than signposts and reference points
in a much larger space of possible ways of doing and representing and

Are there really "fixed knots"? I would only go so far as to say there is
Something, indeed, even that while colloquial is too thing-like. Processes
are happening, dynamics is happening, chaos fills the pleroma, and there are
only two certainties: difference and change. The Great Happening is not
homogeneous and uniform in any dimension, including space and time. The
Kantian a priori's are nothing of the sort. They are just one set of roots
to which one culture's view of reality can be reduced if you wish to do so.
Modern physics has made a hash of both space and time, not mention cause.
Dynamics, on and across some scales, creates and defines space and time as
we experience them and measure them. But there is no necessity about this.
It's just one method of bookkeeping. I go not with Plato but with
Herakleitos: Panta rhei, ouden de menei. Everything is in flux, nothing
persists. Only the timescales differ. There are no stable knots in the
chaos, only transient ways of making do, one of which likes to hold on to
its imagined knots.

So, I'm not basically interested in saying What Things Are, including what
concepts "are", but rather in saying How Events Happen, including events in
which we might be tempted to provisionally agree that that some "higher
intellectual processes" were happening. I don't think we could ever define
those as such, but we could become a dynamical system in which we could get
something worthwhile done while provisionally agreeing to count some
event-specific processes as if they were instances.  :-)

I'll try to relay some of what gets said in our Lab discussions on the
usability of "concepts" to the list, or encourage others to do so.


Jay Lemke
Senior Research Scientist
Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition
University of California - San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, California 92093-0506

Professor (Adjunct status 2009-11)
School of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Professor Emeritus
City University of New York

On Apr 10, 2011, at 11:32 AM, Martin Packer wrote:

> On Apr 10, 2011, at 12:33 PM, Martin Packer wrote:
>>>> Maybe the notion of a "concept" might be a bit like that of a "gene" in
the sense that a gene is a sort of functional unit, but it has no simple
material reality in itself.
> Jay's opening sentence neatly illustrates the difficulty of eliminating
'concept.' He writes of 'the notion' of a concept - which is to say, to
write about concepts he has to employ a concept, namely that of 'concept'!
(If that seems odd, try reading some Frege!)
> As the Stanford Encyclopedia article points out, no one has satisfactorily
defined a concept. But the seeming unavoidability of invoking something like
'concept' follows from the fact that we humans (and perhaps animals too;
another seemingly intractable debate) deal not so much with particularities
as with generalities. We talk and write not about this think and that thing,
but this 'kind' of thing and that 'type' of thing. We write not about the
specific concept of 'rabbit,' but about 'the notion' of concept.
> As Henry James once wrote, "The intellectual life of man consists almost
wholly in his substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual order in
which his experience originally comes." One may disagree with the separation
of the two order that James' words seems to suggest, but it seems
implausible to deny that there are *two* orders.
> Do this order of generalities involve complex interrelations or systems,
as Jay suggests? Are they specified in practice, in ways that depend on
context? Yes, of course. I am deep in the middle of chapter 6 of T&S, and
LSV wrote of all this, 70 years ago. We have already discussed here his
notion [!] of a system of generality, represented metaphorically by lines of
longitude and latitude on a globe.  He conceived of this system as operating
in acts of thought that actively grasp their objects. He saw both the
dependence of generalities on language, and their distinction. 
> Should we avoid, as Jay recommends, claiming that "there are concepts as
such"?  I'm not sure what this claim would amount to. There are, and can
only be, "concepts for us." Should we avoid reifying concepts? Certainly!
Should we remove the term from all scientific discourse, leaving it only as
an "everyday locution"? That's a matter of taste, I suppose. But to sever
completely the links between everyday discourse and scientific discourse
would be to prevent the informing of the former by the latter that LSV found
so important. 
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